Friday, 31 March 2017


99. In the 13th century collection of koans known as the Mumonkan, there is an account of how the Buddha transmitted the Dharma to his disciple Kashyapa. The story has it that at one time when Shakyamuni Buddha was on a mountain called Grdhrakuta, someone presented him with a flower. The Buddha immediately held it up before the gaze of his assembled disciples. They were all dumbstruck. All, that is, except for Mahakashyapa who couldn't help breaking into a broad smile. Noticing this, the Buddha is reported to have said, 'I have the True Dharma Eye, the Marvelous Mind of Nirvana, the True Form of the Formless, and the Subtle Dharma Gate, independent of words, and transmitted beyond doctrine. This I have entrusted to Mahakashyapa'.
     This story appears to have all the hallmarks of an historical account of the occasion on which Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha transmitted the Dharma to his disciple Mahakashyapa. We are told the time and the place of the transmission: when Shakyamuni Buddha was at Mount Grdhrakuta. This Mount Grdhrakuta is a peak in what is today North India. Both Gautama Shakyamuni and Kashyapa are real historical figures. In the Zen tradition this story is taken at face value and considered to be factual.
     All, however, is not as it seems. Scholars point out that no account of this transmission event can be found before this story appeared in a sutra of Chinese origin in the year 1036 CE, some fourteen hundred years after the event would have taken place. In addition to the chronological issue is that of language. For here the Buddha does not speak the language of ancient India but rather that of a Sung dynasty Chan master. The general consensus among contemporary scholars and historians is that this story that figures as Case 6 of the Mumonkan is an invention, a fabrication, a piece of historical fiction.
     Granted the truth of what the scholars tell us, how are we to take the Mumonkan's account of the time and manner of Mahakashyapa's reception of the Buddha's Dharma? The first thing we should note is the literary form of our story. namely, that of the koan. And koans, like poems, are not meant to be taken literally. They do not give us factual information about the world or its history. What they do give us are expressions and patterns of how our deep yearning for liberation for ourselves and all beings, the yearning known as bodhicitta, awakens within us, and is tested, acknowledged and affirmed by the Zen master and Sangha.

Monday, 27 March 2017


98. Entering the silence of zazen can be such a beautiful experience that some practitioners want to stay there forever. Hence the challenge of the koan that would have us step from the top of a hundred foot pole.

Friday, 24 March 2017


97. When the disciple has gone beyond words and entered into silence, the demand will be made, 'Say something!'

Saturday, 18 March 2017


96. Going beyond words, images, concepts, we enter into silence through the practices of breath awareness and body awareness. By following the breath and paying attention to our body we develop both concentration and mindfulness. Thus a space opens for a wordless inquiry into the self. Before long we begin to sense that there is more to the self than the finite, separate, empirical self that we and others ordinarily observe. And so begins our search for the mysterious, elusive Self, the self that we spell with an upper case 'S' to distinguish it from the objectified self of our everyday experience. In our search, however, there is great scope for self-deception. The Zen practitioner can easily become attached to particular rituals and symbols, not to mention ideas and opinions. Hence the importance of finding an authentic Master to guide us and a supportive sangha to safeguard us. On the Zen path of self-inquiry we will at every turn find ourselves challenged by the words of Eno, the Sixth Patriarch: 'At this very moment, what is your original self?' 

Sunday, 12 March 2017


95. There is nothing wrong with words as such. Problems arise with our misuse of words. In the understanding of Zen, the most dangerous misuse of words has to do with the expectation that words can be used to say what only can be shown. This, of course, is not to deny that there are many things that words can say. 

Friday, 10 March 2017


94. The sutra says 'Words! The Way is beyond language'. So why all these wordy remarks?

Thursday, 9 March 2017


93. The practice of Zen is very much a practice of letting-go. Thus Master AMA Samy would have us let go of our 'attachment to attachments'. In a similar vein Master Dogen Kigen insists on the importance of forgetting 'all attachments steadfastly'. This practice of letting-go can best be thought of as a process of self-emptying, self-forgetting. Consequently, our first step in the practice of Zen is not towards getting something. Rather, it is directed towards losing something. This something that must be lost is none other than ourself, ourself with its attachments, self-images, fantasies. Only through this process of self-emptying can we uncover in ourselves a 'radical openness to the other ... in a leaf, a flower, a sound, a gesture' that, says AMA Samy, 'brings us to awakening'. 

Monday, 6 March 2017


92. Zazen in the darkness before dawn. No cars pass in the street. No plane flies overhead. No man mows his lawn. No dog barks in anyone's backyard. No bird sings. There is only this ringing in my ears. And the koan challenge: stop the sound of the distant temple bell.

Friday, 3 March 2017


91. In such a basic Zen practice as counting the breath we learn to let go of all entangling questions and arguments. We do not concern ourselves with distinctions between theist and atheist, Christian and Buddhist, right and wrong. There is just this breathing one-e-e-e ... just this breathing two-o-o-o ... Letting go of all naming, all distinguishing, all differentiating, we let go of all clinging. Immersing ourselves in the very process of breath counting, we relax and become that process. Thus we enter what Zen master Dogen calls the Dharma gate of great joy and repose.